A state-wide smoking ban is making its way through the legislature while McDuffie County Commissioners continue to make tentative plans for voting on a similar ordinance for the county.
Commissioners will discuss changes to the proposed McDuffie County Smoke Free Air Act during their work session on April 4 with a vote scheduled for April 6. But that all depends on the word from state lawmakers.
"If it passes in both the House and the Senate, I would expect us just to put ours on hold. Then if the governor vetoes it, then we'll take action at a later date," said Commission Chairman Charlie Newton. "We'll just let it lie until the state decides what they're going to do."
The watered-down version of a state-wide smoking ban won approval last Tuesday in the Georgia House after hours of tense debate pitting private business owners' rights against concerns over the effects of second-hand smoke.
The controversial measure passed in a 118-52 vote. Should it become law, it would prevent smokers from lighting up inside most enclosed places of private employment, as well as all public buildings. Offenders would be charged with a misdemeanor and could face a fine between $100 to $500 if convicted.
The Senate passed a stricter version of the bill earlier this year. However, the House approved several exceptions to the ban, including outdoor work sites, retail tobacco stores, as well as bars and restaurants closed to minors under 18.
The House also amended the bill to exempt private rooms in restaurants and bars, provided that such rooms are enclosed and have separate ventilation systems.
Advocates praised the bill as a powerful tool for advancing public health despite the added loopholes.
"We think fewer children will smoke. We think more people will decide to quit, and certainly we are hopeful that we can reduce some health-care costs," said June Deen, spokeswoman for the American Lung Association of Georgia, which supported the bill.
The House version of Senate Bill 90 would allow cities and counties to enforce even stricter public smoking bans, but no policies would be permitted that weaken the statewide measure.
Chairman Newton said the commission will wait to find out what Governor Sonny Purdue does with the bill before taking action on the McDuffie County measure "because ours is a severely watered-down version if you look at what they're passing."
Like several McDuffie County commissioners, many lawmakers said they were torn on the issue.
"The Libertarian in me wants to stay out of this altogether, but I do believe the risk of second-hand smoke is important and we should do something about it," said Rep. Jane Kidd, D-Athens, who voted for the bill.
However, some were uniformly in support of the ban.
"We have got to change the mindset of this state to become a healthier state," said Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, a pharmacist who was unsuccessful in removing some of the exceptions during committee consideration last week. "This is a start. This is the way we can do it."
Still, many House members said they worried the government was meddling with the private sector's ability to control its own affairs.
"It's almost like freedom of speech," said Rep. Henry Howard, D-Augusta. "If a person decides they want to smoke, they should be able to smoke."
Throat cancer survivor Kathie Cheney was among those cheering when the House passed S.B. 90. She was diagnosed with cancer in 1987 after working nearly two decades as a flight attendant for the defunct Eastern Air Lines.
"I have not had my first cigarette, but I got the damage," she said.